Monday, August 20, 2012


Here's a short and simple reminder with the start of a new school year.

I have a student, we'll call him Craig, whose name has come up constantly since he was a seventh grader. I can tell only three days in that he's full of energy, mischievous, and that the writing in my English class is not going to be his favorite thing.

I try to make a point to greet students at the door, especially early in the year when I am trying to learn names. Today, I asked him about his weekend on the way in, and he began telling me about an injury he received from one of his dangerous activities. I asked him a couple questions about another somewhat dangerous activity I thought he might be involved in, and he stood there and talked with me until the bell rang.

Obviously this was good for our rapport, which will make everything about instruction easier in the days to come. But there's something else. Today students generated their own ideas for writing. Craig is a kid who might sit there, claiming he has nothing to write about. But he immediately started working with ideas about one of his dangerous activities, and he did an awesome job. 

It's important to remember that some kids have to talk before they can write. And in order to talk, they might need someone to listen.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


I know, I've been gone a while. And I'm about to go on maternity leave, so it's doubtful there will be many teaching stories until next August. But this one kid has been on my mind, and I've been wanting to write about him, so I am giving in and just writing one post (that will make 2 this year?). Hopefully I'll be better next school year about logging these moments.

Anyway, let's talk about Charlie. Charlie has major work completion problems. He fails classes without thinking about it. He draws these amazing pictures during class, and I know that even though the game of school doesn't work for him, he could do great things someday if he could just figure out that some deadlines are important. I've been reading his fiction and poetry and talking about books with him for two years. But he's still failing my class.

We are writing character analyses about Romeo and Juliet right now. (Well, most of us are finished. Not Charlie.) I know that literary analysis is not the type of writing that moves and inspires people, but I can justify its worth for the thought process kids must undergo and the way it prepares them for so much of the "school writing" they will have to do. It is also a formula that once students learn, they continue to grow in confidence that they can put cohesive, supportive ideas on the page. So I acknowledge that kids should write MORE than literary analysis, but I think it has its place in the ninth grade English classroom.

Charlie sees no value in this type of school writing. But he has to pass my class. I keep him after school only to discover that he has not even started coming up with evidence to support any idea. I curse myself for not seeing this at any point during our three days of in-class work time (God forbid I was helping kids with their hands in the air), but then I lay into him about his work habits and how scared I am for his future.

"You can't keep doing this, Charlie. You can't just sit and do nothing for three days and keep expecting people to help you pick up the pieces after the fact. It is not okay. And I know that this type of writing is not ever going to to excite you the way that fiction does, but part of growing up is just doing things you don't want to do." There was probably more, but that was the gist of it. My frustration is palpable. (I am usually pretty good about giving kids infinite chances--for better or for worse--so when I am seriously irritated, I think kids notice.)

Charlie asked to work in the other ninth grade teacher's room. And I was actually grateful, even though I knew it was probably because I had hurt his feelings.

He came in to see me before he left, and we went over his outline and plan for the weekend. I pretended to believe him when he said he would get it done. I reiterated the points of my earlier soapbox speech, but I adjusted it to value him. "You are such a perfectionist. And you have writing in your life that you DO value, so much, that this type of school writing might always be a bore. You might not be able to sit around and get inspired. You might just have to pick a topic that you don't care about that much, but you can finish the assignment about, and just do the work. As your writing teacher, I hate to tell you to just settle for a topic, but it may be the only way that you can even get started."

He smiled. "I know that you think that's like the worst thing to say as a writing teacher. But you know me so well as a writer. And a person."

And just like that, Charlie can have a million more chances. And I will keep thinking about how I can make literary analysis a bit more applicable to his life.